3. Humor

Why it matters

It is said that the shortest distance between two people is a smile.

Humor is a clear indicator of a team that works well together. You know the atmosphere is good when there is joy, team members value their time together when they are having fun.

Humor is also a useful coaching tool. Humor can help diffuse a tense situation; it can help create a healthy distance to absurdities we stumble upon, so we can reflect and learn from them. And finally, humor is one of the best ways to bring people closer together.

Now that we understand the power of humor, why not design for it, appreciate it, and infuse it in everyday work?

“Whoever takes only jokes for jokes
And seriousness only seriously
He and she have actually understood
Both equally poorly”

Piet Hein

How it works

The science of humor and the origin of a good laugh is often this: You start by planting an idea in people’s heads, with the real idea all along being something else. Then, at the right moment, you reveal it. The key is doing this intelligently, both timing and context matters.

Practice 1 – Have a feel for the situation

Timing is everything. Humor can diffuse a tense situation, or break the ice when we are strangers. Humor is versatile in many more situations than you can probably imagine. That said, it needs to be used intelligently, with tact and feel for the situation. Cultural context and situational awareness help a lot. You also need a little bit of courage. There’s no better time to put humor to good use than breaking the silence of a pregnant pause.

Practice 2 – Use humor to remember and talk about important things

Agile teams live in a complex and fast moving world. There is one thing you can be certain of – you will experience failures (it’s a sign of learning!). Humor is a great way to speak about past failures, create a healthy distance to the situation as an observer, without it becoming too serious.

This allows a team to share stories about its history, “why we ended up where we are” and relate important learnings to new members. We have shared experiences. Humor and inside jokes allow us to play with the words that relate the experience.

Practice 3 – Prepare

Have a little joke library prepared. Deliberately scout for team members who are natural energizers, who can inject a little bit of energy or their personality into a joke. This is fuel for the spirit. Usually, there’s a little bit of very useful informal chatter that follows a good joke. This informal chatter, the “coffee machine talk”, can help teams generate awareness of how members feel and think, at the moment.

Building humor is a way to play together as human beings. It’s an intelligent way to decode the context. Humor is contagious. It rubs off. Start with injecting a small joke every now and then. It doesn’t have to be funny, the effort will be appreciated. Before you know it, that impossible situation is behind you and you have shifted the energy towards the future.

Here’s something to get you started 🙂

Random Joke
An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scot are working on the building site for the London Olympic Games?
They've been told that, as a perk, they'll be given tickets, but come the day, they're told that there are no free places left, and only athletes will be let into the ground."

Thinking quickly, the Englishman grabs a length of scaffolding and he announces, "Johnny Smith, England. Pole vault." He is admitted.

The Scot follows his lead, finds a sawhorse and says, "Dunbar McPherson, Scotland. Hurdles." And he's also admitted.

The Irishman casts his eyes about in desperation, and seizes some barbed wire and two by fours.

The guard stops him, asking who he is.

"Paddy O’Malley, Ireland. Fencing."